Suzuki Swift Sport

Suzuki is known for building great racing bikes, but its cars haven't made much of an impression. Maybe that will change when the new Swift Sport arrives. John Simister reports from the test track

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Model: Suzuki Swift Sport
Price: £10,500 approx, on sale June 2006
Engine: 1,586cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 125bhp at 6,800rpm, 109lb ft at 4,800rpm
Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: (estimated) 124mph, 0 to 60mph in 8.8 seconds, 38.7mpg official average
CO2: 175g/km

Something is not quite right here. I've just turned into a fast bend on

Suzuki's test track at Ryuyo, south-west of Tokyo, and maybe I shouldn't have gone in quite as quickly. I ease off the accelerator and suddenly the Suzuki Swift Sport that I'm driving feels as if its back tyres have lost half of their air. Am I about to spin? This would be very embarrassing, as this car is one of just two prototypes.

But despite my racing heart, it's a false alarm. The Suzuki has settled at its new drift angle and is scurrying towards the bend's exit like a little racing car. Phew.

Now, I'm all in favour of small fast cars that point keenly into corners, and it's even better if they turn tightly as you ease the power because it gives you more interactivity and options for control. More fun, in fact. But you need to be able to feel what's going on, whereas the Suzuki has just cast me adrift into a sensationless fog. If this happened on a wet road to an inexperienced driver, there'd be panic. Unnecessary panic because the Swift Sport actually does the right things when you drive through the fog, but it's not right.

So, I try the other example of Suzuki's forthcoming hot(tish) hatchback. That's better. The tail is no longer bungee-jumping, all is stable and sensible yet still good fun, if a touch rubbery. The difference? This one has ESP, an electronic stability programme, and is constantly applying little dabs on individual brakes or taming the engine's outputs. From Mr Hyde back to Dr Jekyll, but there's a flaw in the solution. ESP is great if it's not intrusive, but it shouldn't be used to mask intrinsically wayward handling. A car should be inherently right without ESP, with the electronics added as a safety net.

The Swift Sport arrives in Britain next June, its estimated £10,500 price a bargain. Before then, however, the chief engineer Eiji Mochizuki agrees that there is work to do and is pleased to get independent feedback. The solution will be twofold. Mochizuki will use stiffer rubber in the mountings for the rear axle so it can't deflect sideways so easily (rear-suspension location really effects how steering feels), and he'll mount the steering rack solidly to the front subframe instead of interposing rubber blocks. Rubberiness out, metallic positivity in.

It all bodes well for the Swift Sport, a car that should play a big part in Suzuki's reinvention of its image. After all, you could be forgiven for not knowing that Suzuki makes cars at all. Motorbikes yes, small 4x4s certainly, but the cars haven't insinuated themselves into our awareness, except in sporadic bit-parts.

Examples? Two tiny sports cars of a while ago, the Whizzkid coupé and the

Cappuccino roadster. The tall Ignis hatchback, which looks a bit like a 4x4 and won last year's Junior World Rally Championship. Or the lofty Liana saloon, transport for the "star in a reasonably priced car" in every edition of Top Gear. It has done 15,000 track miles now and still hasn't broken.

This invisibility squares oddly with the fact that Suzuki is Japan's fourth-largest car-maker in terms of production, both in Japan or elsewhere (India and Hungary make thousands of Suzukis). True, many of the cars are mini-cars (not that the grim Alto is bought by many in the UK), but they are cars nonetheless.

At its launch back in March, the new Swift supermini was billed as the car to change the perception. It's built in Japan and Hungary, will be built in India and China, and was designed (successfully) with European tastes in mind. Our road test found it a good-looking car that is fun to drive, well made and very good value, and the most credible mainstream Suzuki car there has ever been. Its marketing pitch has a sporty flavour, and clearly there now needs to be a souped-up version.

In June 2006, there will be exactly that, but the Swift Sport is not a big-league power machine like a Renault Clio 182 or a Mini Cooper S. It's gentler, cheaper and more accessible, with 125bhp from its 1.6-litre engine and that temptingly low price. It's a warm hatch rather than a hot one, a car to set against rivals such as a regular Mini Cooper or a Citroën C2 VTS, say.

The little Swift's styling lends itself well to some added muscularity. Like a Mini, it has blacked-in windscreen and centre pillars to give what its designer calls a "helmet look" - the glass area is meant to represent a visor. The wheel arches are exaggerated and the whole shape made up of straight lines and constant-radius curves. It's a technical-looking car, with apparent inspiration not just from the Mini but also Renault's Mégane.

For the Sport, big wheels now fill the ample arches, and the suspension is stiffened to keep the Swift flatter in corners. The brakes are bigger, with discs at the back, the gearbox has shorter-legged ratios for a more responsive feel, and the engine gains power not only from the extra capacity (1.6 litres) but also higher compression, more lift for the twin overhead camshafts, revised programming from the variable valve timing and an ample pair of exhaust pipes. All standard tuning technique.

The visual upgrades are the usual deeper valances and a spoiler above the tailgate, all of which help to reduce aerodynamic lift at speed. The tail-lights get separate round bulb units beneath the clear covers, in the style popularised by the Lexus iS 200, and inside there's a leather steering- wheel, chrome rings for the dials, aluminium pedal pads, fake aluminium door and dashboard trims and sportier seats with more lateral support. It's a low-key makeover, and the cabin may be more cheery by the time the Sport arrives here. Our Swifts will be three-doors, too; the five-doors pictured are for the Japanese market.

It's interesting to try a car while it's still under development, to get a taste of the end result while discovering the engineers' tasks on the way. Suzuki knows what needs to be done, and I think the Swift Sport will prove an engaging little car. We'll check back next June.

The rivals

MINI COOPER, £12,105

The Mini, from BMW, remains the coolest baby hatch on the planet, but engine power is 10bhp down on the Swift. Incidentally, you can buy a Mini One (£10,995) and easily boost it up to Cooper performance with a "chip" conversion.

MITSUBISHI COLT CZT, £12,999

The regular Colt is a great supermini, but this 150bhp turbo version doesn't gel at all - the ride is hard, the steering lacks feel, and the engine is oddly uncharismatic. The more expensive Smart Brabus Forfour is more pleasing.

NISSAN MICRA SR160, £9,995

This warmed-over Micra, which has just been launched, isn't the 160bhp monster it sounds as if it should be, but a 1.6-litre with a rather more gentle 110bhp. It is good fun to drive, though, with taut handling and a very tempting price tag.

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